Vanja Sky is back, with her second release since joining Thomas Ruf’s label. Vanja dropped her job in Croatia as a pastry chef when the Blues came calling at age 19 and it was a wise choice. On the evidence here, the new disc will be selling like hot-cakes. Lets take a peek at the ingredients that went into ‘Woman Named Trouble’
I still blush when I remember, after Vanja Sky’s excellent Blues Caravan appearance in Bonn, asking her if she had seen Rory Gallagher live onstage. Her answer was diplomatic, but I realised later that she was only two years old when Rory died in in 1995. A whole quarter-century has passed since Rory’s passing, but the man is as influential as ever as his recent ‘new’ live release and this disc from a young musician, proves. Crucially though, ‘Woman Named Trouble’ shows the Croatian Bluesrocker is finding her own style, and it creates a glorious mix of Rock charged Blues with a healthy dose of Punk attitude. There are Funk and Country influences in the melting-pot that produced ‘Woman Named Trouble’ too, which lead me to suspect that the old saying about it not being the destination but the journey that matters has more than a grain of truth.
You would be forgiven if you saw Vanja Sky’s two RUF discs in a shop and thought one of them must be filed in the wrong place. Is that blonde girl with the white dress and big smile on ‘Bad Penny’ really the same spikey black haired punkette on the edgy black white and yellow cover of ‘Woman Named Trouble’? The answer is both a yes and a no.
The love and inspiration of Rory Gallagher’s music have certainly not changed from that 2018 rendition of ‘Bad Penny’. The fact that last time around Vanja Sky bravely took on a ‘lesser known’ Gallagher classic in the shape of ‘Bad Penny’ but this time boldly and confidently tackles the iconic live Rory number ‘Shadow Play’ tells you something of the change in attitude and particularly gain in confidence between the two RUF releases though. That said, there is often a big difference between first and second releases from RUF musicians with the second allowing more artistic control from the person signing onto the label. Understandable when RUF are stumping up the money for an unknown quantity on the international Blues market.
Recorded at Schalltona Studios in Hamburg and (well) produced by ace Brit bassman Roger Inniss, eight of the numbers here are written by Vanja together with guitarist Robert Wendt and they all stand up well against the three covers, Gallagher’s ‘Shadow Play’, Peter Green’s ‘Oh Well’ and Luther Allison’s ‘Life is a Bitch’. There’s a distinctive ’70’s feel about the rock numbers here: ‘Rock n Rolla Train’, ‘Turn it On’ and ‘Trouble Maker’. No complaints from me on that front. Some of the best Rock came out then, and I’m sure she went down a storm supporting Hard Rock veterans UFO not so long ago. There’s even a ’70’s Rock sexist slant on the lyrics that the likes of David Coverdale would appreciate from that period: “I wanna see you naked. You trouble maker!” she declares (‘Trouble Maker’). ’70’s attitude pervades then, but were the Ladies themselves even writing lyrics like that back then? I’d love to put Vanja in a time-machine and drop a number like ‘Trouble Maker’ on the Hard Rock fans of the day. It would have scared them sh**less! I hear echoes at times off Chrissie Hynde too. Again, no complaints on that score.
What particularly excites me about ‘Woman Named Trouble’ though is the way that punk energy is channelled into other styles. It’s no real surprise given Thomas Ruf’s involvement in Luther Allison’s career and son Bernard accompanying Vanja (with Mike Zito) on the 2018 Blues Caravan that a Bernard Allison number gets the nod. Vanja’s ‘Life is a Bitch’ doesn’t venture too far from the original score and benefits from the funky bassline pumped out by Roger Inniss too, but what is different is the sassy, high energy vocal that takes the song into the 21st Century with a bang.
Nowhere is the punk energy mix more welcome to my ears than when Vanja matches her high-energy vocals and guitar with a Country Music overtone. It’s a combination that I found irresistable many years ago from Elvis Costello with his ‘Almost Blue’ release. ‘Call Me If You Need Me’ is a breathy Country tinged ballad but the extra urgency in Sky’s vocals and the cutting guitar promise great things to come on future releases. Similarly, ‘Let’s get Wild’ edges into Johnny Cash territory guitar-wise but there’s that sharp voice urging us to have a good time.
As mentioned already, there is a melting pot of ideas on this disc. ‘Oh Well’ and ‘Shadow Play’ could easily sound jaded after so many years, but there’s a young attitude on here that kicks off the dust and puts back the excitement that young ears heard many years ago. Vanja’s vocals have made a quantum leap forward from ‘Bad Penny’ and the same can be said of her playing. If you’re worried about the guitar keeping up with the voice energy wise don’t be. Sky can pull out a bluesy metal riff when she wants too – witness the close of ‘Oh Well’.
That Man Gallagher seeps through to the soul of so much of the music on here though. Titles like ‘Voodoo Mama’ and ‘What’s Going On‘ could be on a G Man album. There’s even Vanja on mandolin to echo Rory’s eye for the instrument as used on ‘Going To My Hometown’. Which brings me inevitably to Vanja’s choice of ‘Shadowplay’ as a Rory cover on ‘Woman Named Trouble’. It doesn’t perhaps have the breakneck pace of Rory’s original, which is tribute to the often undervalued contribution to Gallagher’s music of bassman Gerry McAvoy. You can tell this one really counted in the studio for Vanja though. It’s pushed her guitar playing and even the agression in her vocal delivery up a further notch. Taking on a Rory Gallagher classic on only your second disc is brave indeed. If you’re gonna mess with the kid, do it right. Vanja Sky sure does it right on ‘Shadow Play’ and indeed the whole ‘Woman Named Trouble’ disc is a delight. I’m not sure that she’s quite found her own style yet, but this one hell of a good stop on the journey to it.